Article Review: Spencer McBride, “When Joseph Smith Met Martin Van Buren: Mormonism and the Politics of Religious Liberty in Nineteenth-Century America””

By June 3, 2016

Spencer W. McBride, ?When Joseph Smith Met Martin Van Buren: Mormonism and the Politics of Religious Liberty in Nineteenth-Century America,? Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 85, no. 1 (March 2016): 150-158.

CH CoverAs much as we love the Journal of Mormon History, it’s always encouraging to see work on Mormonism appear in mainstream historical or religious studies journals. So it was a pleasant discovery to find Spencer McBride’s short article in a recent issue of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, a venerable academic journal that has been publishing on the history of Christianity since 1932. Church History is the organ of the American Society of Church History, a group that has recently fallen on hard times. Or, perhaps more accurately, it has run into a perplexing situation. Recent shifts in scholarship have taken the study of American religion away from the traditional themes of “church history,” with its focus on denominations, institutions, and traditional social dynamics. Christopher wrote a few years ago in response to Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s important presidential address to the ASCH, “The Burden of Church  History,” which proposed some revitalizing steps to be taken. One of these was further engagement with Catholicism and Mormonism, a suggestion that mirrors other scholars? encouragement to move from a study of “American Christianity” to one that acknowledges “American Christianities.” [1]

Further engagement with Mormonism wouldn’t take much. A quick count shows that since 1932 Church History has published about twenty articles that deal substantially with the Mormon tradition. This small group does include some notable pieces, primarily situated in the nineteenth century. It includes Grant Underwood?s “Early Mormon Millenialism: Another Look” (1985) and Thomas Alexander’s “Wilford Woodruff and the Changing Nature of Mormon Religious Experience,” (1976). It also includes Phil Barlow’s “Jan Shipps and the Mainstreaming of Mormon Studies” (2004), Jan Shipps’s “From Peoplehood to Church Membership: Mormonism’s Trajectory since World War” (2007), and our own Steve Fleming’s “The Religious Heritage of the British Northwest and the Rise of Mormonism” (2008). As the dates of these latter articles suggest, there is a trend toward inclusivity: between 2000 and 2009, Church History published as many articles on Mormonism (approximately eight) as it did in the previous seven decades. Relevant book reviews also are on the rise.

Spencer McBride’s brief article, part of a three-part “Forum on Christian Minorities in the Early American Republic,” (the forum also features Quakers and Shakers) has some interesting things to say that help demonstrate why Mormonism is a worth scholars’ attention. Focusing on the Van Buren episode, McBride offers an account of the political tensions that arose in the wake of conflict between Mormons, vigilantes, and the state government in Missouri. He argues that the major political obstacles to intervention on behalf of harassed Mormons were states’ rights obstructionism and electoral politics. Interestingly, he does not believe that there was ultimately a jurisdictional obstacle to the federal government’s intervention on behalf of Mormons, at least for not for Congress. While he notes Supreme Court rulings which found that the Bill of Rights did not apply and could not be federally enforced in the states, McBride contends that “if the church?s delegation could have mustered enough Congressional support for their cause, Congress likely could have found justification to act” (157). The article gives some further reflection for why these obstacles were insuperable just when states’ rights logic was reaching the peak of its power in defense of slavery.

McBride’s other major point is to suggest that Mormons’ attitudes in seeking federal redress and protection in the name of religious liberty were not as naïve or as exceptional as it might seem. He notes that Mormons fit a larger trend, a “meaningful development within popular interpretation of the United States Constitution” (158). Here McBride verges on an important point made in David Sehat’s Myth of American Religious Freedom. Sehat demonstrates that there was indeed a surging popular school of constitutional interpretation during the nineteenth century, and Mormons are a textbook case of its deployment. I would have liked to see McBride engage here; indeed, I would like to see all of his arguments developed further. In the brief scope of the forum article, however, he manages to show yet again why why Mormonism matters to broader historical conversations and how many of these potential veins of inquiry–such as the history of religious liberty and conflict in America–remain to explored.


[1] See Catherine A. Brekus and W. Clark Gilpin, eds., American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), especially Catherine Albanese?s contribution “Understanding Christian Diversity in America,” 29-58.





Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Christian History Historiography Methodology, Academic Issues Politics State of the Discipline


  1. Thanks, Ryan. Spencer is the author of a booklength treatment of Protestant clergymen in the early republic (U. Va. press, forthcoming) and a JSP historian. This CH piece is just a teaser for another book he has planned on JS’s 1844 presidential campaign.

    Comment by David G. — June 3, 2016 @ 6:52 am

  2. Glad to hear that this is part of something larger, David; a book on JS’s presidential campaign sounds great. I like where Spencer’s analysis is going.

    Comment by Ryan T. — June 3, 2016 @ 7:47 am

  3. Thanks, Ryan. Spencer is doing fantastic work.

    Comment by Ben P — June 3, 2016 @ 8:38 am

  4. Thanks for this, Ryan, encouraging work.

    Another one was Samuel Brown, ?Joseph (Smith) in Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden,? Church History 78, no. 1 (2009): 26-65.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 3, 2016 @ 9:10 am

  5. Ryan, thank you for your kind words and for the attention you have given to my article. This forum grew out of a panel on Christian minorities in nineteenth century America at SHEAR in 2015 (Raleigh, NC). I join you in wishing that I had engaged more deeply with some of the ideas I put forth but, alas, the constraints on length for this forum would not allow it.

    However, as David G. mentioned above this is part of a bigger project. Ben P. and I are on a panel at the ASCH/AHA conference in Denver in January 2017 that will further explore some of the themes I started to describe in the Church History forum in a way that shows Smith and the Mormons as part of a much larger critique of American the American political system, particularly the way political philosophies that are on the surface religiously benign can negatively impact religious minority groups, either unintentionally or in a way that allows persecutors to deny religious prejudice. As for the book on Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign, it is moving along.

    Comment by Spencer McBride — June 3, 2016 @ 10:16 am

  6. Excellent. Thanks for the note, Spencer. I look forward to seeing more!

    Comment by Ryan T. — June 3, 2016 @ 10:26 am


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